A Berkeley astrophysicist and a NASA engineer won the 2006 Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday for their discovery of the strongest evidence to date that the universe began with a big bang, a feat the Nobel committee said “marked the inception of cosmology as a precise science.”
John C. Mather, 60, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., played a crucial role in the design of the cosmic background explorer, or COBE, satellite, launched in 1989, and was the principal investigator on one of the key experiments, which studied radiation from the very earliest minutes of the universe.
George F. Smoot, 61, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., measured small temperature differences in the radiation that showed the initial distribution of matter. When their results were published in 1992, famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking called it “the greatest discovery of the century, if not of all time.”
When COBE was launched, the majority of cosmologists favored the so-called steady-state theory, which argued that matter is continually being created and destroyed throughout the universe. The big-bang theory, which said that the expansion of the universe began with a single, mammoth explosion, was dismissed as an aberration.
Smoot and Mather’s observations, collected in the first nine minutes of observation, radically altered the balance. Their results so closely matched experimental predictions that, when they presented the findings at the May 1992 meeting of the American Astronomical Society, they received a standing ovation.
“That was the first standing ovation ever at an AAS meeting,” said Ed Weiler, director of the Goddard center. “Astronomers tend to be extremely conservative.”
Per Carlson, chairman of the Nobel physics committee, said in a teleconference that “they have not proven the big-bang theory, but they give it very strong support.”
According to the Nobel citation, the big bang “is the only scenario that predicts the kind of cosmic microwave background radiation measured by COBE.” The pair were not taken completely unawares by the news, delivered in early morning telephone calls from Sweden.
“I can’t say I am completely surprised,” said Mather, the first NASA employee to win a Nobel. “People have been saying we should be awarded.” He noted that he had received so many phone calls and e-mails that he had to unplug his phone and his BlackBerry crashed.
Smoot, who is on the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley, was a little more skeptical about the 2:45 a.m. call, because his number is unlisted. The committee had awakened a neighbor to get the number.
“I wasn’t sure it was them, but they sounded really serious and had Swedish accents,” Smoot said. “I wasn’t really sure until I ran to my computer and pulled up the Nobel Web site.”
Tuesday’s announcement marks the second time a physics Nobel has been awarded for observing cosmic microwave background radiation, believed to be a relic of the first light to move freely through the universe after the big bang.
The 1978 physics prize went to Arnold A. Penzias and Robert W. Wilson of the Bell Telephone Laboratories for their first observation of the radiation in the early 1960s. They showed its existence, but interference from the Earth’s atmosphere made precise measurements impossible.
Such measurements could be made only from space, and COBE almost didn’t make it into orbit. The final design was for a 10,000-pound satellite that would be carried into space aboard the shuttle. That mission was aborted by the crash of the Challenger.
In despair, the team began contacting European and Russian space officials hoping to find a ride, Smoot said Tuesday. Eventually, he said, NASA relented and offered to launch the craft aboard a Delta rocket – but only if they could reduce its weight by half.